Design Speaks Directly to the Soul

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As Ryan observed, design is more than making something look pretty. It is the first line of assault against your senses, charging in to make room for a deeper truth–for the greater message being communicated through the whole of a piece. Design is the underlying foundation of everything, and much like our own skeletons, it is likewise hidden and sometimes forgotten.

There are two things I understand decently well amongst all the things in the world, and so it is those two upon which I will focus in the context of this series. The first is architecture, with which I will begin because (of the two) I understand it least. The second is writing in general and poetry in specific.

Architectural design is not something with which many Americans (by which I am referring to the residents of the United States of America) are preoccupied. We might admire a fine building and snap a picture while on tour, but it isn’t something we study, stare at, and marvel. Yet architecture is one of the great fascinations of my life, and when I am in a distant city, I spend the vast majority of my time wandering the streets, eyes fixed to the walls, roofs, and doors of all the buildings I can see. I have spent hours lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey so that I could look upon its vast facade and out across the square at its neighbours. Days beside the river Thames marveling at the wall that skirts the river, or wandering the streets and hills of San Francisco, or the wide sidewalks of Chicago. I derived a great deal of enjoyment from comparing German Switzerland to German Germany and the similarities and differences in how the walls meet the roofs, the materials used, and the arrangement of their towns. Architecture fascinates me in a way similar to the hypnotic stare of a dragon preparing to pounce on a meal.

The USA is very utilitarian in its construction, but once upon a time architecture was not just a pragmatic means of getting a building upright. Rather, it was an art designed to communicate something to the passerby. A non-Christian friend admitted to me once that she began to cry as she entered a cathedral in Europe simply due to its beauty. This is a design done right. This assails our senses, demanding entry to our heart because of its power and majesty.

And it is not unique to architecture. Though you may not admire buildings as I do, I imagine that you can sympathize with and understand what I have written above, because it is a very obvious example of the purpose, power, and presence of design. Less obvious is the placement and depth of a thumb scoop on a MacBook, the resistance and length of a switch on a coffee pot, or the arrangement of words in a poem.

I can communicate an idea to you with a straight-forward statement of fact in a simple, well organized sentence, and in so doing you will understand the words and potentially their implications. Yet such a statement will not touch your heart, nor will it influence your soul, for that is the purview of poetry. There are many who malign the ambiguity and obtuseness of poetry, wishing instead that the writers would be more direct with their intentions, but that directness is not of the greatest design.

There are times when communicating with your head is sufficient, such as at work or when figuring out where to go for lunch. But there are other times when that will not do, when I will need to build a bridge from my heart to yours if you are ever to truly understand what I mean. A simple sentence will not suffice. And it is in these instances that the power of design is made manifest in writing.

A good design not only joins our hearts and souls, but it satisfies something deep within our selves. No, the switch on a coffee pot is not a cathedral or a poem, but you will know it is right. You will flip that switch to turn the coffee pot on and think, “Ah, there we have it. This is good.” A good design is more than just functional, it is beautiful. It was created with love and an attention to detail that surpasses a mere statement and that goes beyond simple pragmatism.

Good design, like our skeletons, holds us up and drives us forward. It is a powerful charge we can only refuse by closing our eyes and ignoring the world.

SilverPen’s First Podcast

I’ve mentioned before (through MySpace and Twitter) that I have some interest in podcasting, but it was the somewhat indecipherable interest of a young boy staring at shiny things. “Why do you need that?” an older me might ask, and younger me would simply point and exclaim, “Shiny!”

There was no need to be met by podcasting, no call for me to do it or demand that I record my voice. But it seemed kind of cool, and I wanted to join the cool crowd who recorded things that were subsequently listened to on the Internet.

Of course, I never did it, because I had no content. What would I speak on? Who would care? What’s the point? All valid questions, and all made completely moot last Tuesday.

I was speaking on the subject of Romance at FnC (the college ministry I helped found a few years ago) and decided not to print my notes out. Now that I have a laptop capable of super-mega-cool things like staying-on-for-more-than-thirty-minutes, I thought I’d just use that instead of wasting paper.

And since I’d have my MacBook there, and Macs are known for their sexy audio capture and editing capabilities, I thought, “Huh, why not hit a record button before I start?”

And that is what I did. I cut out the very beginning when I was moving chairs and the very end, which were just weekly announcements. Other than that, it’s unedited, for which I partially apologize. Since FnC is somewhat discussion-focused, you can’t hear everyone on the track, and there are a number of clicks and claps at the beginning that hail from unknown sources.

In general, I was very impressed with the MacBook’s built-in microphone, and it was a pretty easy process. Publishing a podcast was less straightforward, but thanks to the Podcasting plugin, even that is relatively easy.

The talk was around 34 minutes, so if you’re interested in hearing me ramble about romance, movies, Arthurian legends, chastity, and purity, I invite you to give it a listen.

Available on iTunes and for local download [mp3 format] (though I really encourage iTunes as they have way more bandwidth than me!).

As with everything published by me, this podcast is licensed under a CC BY-ND-NC license.

PS There was also a request for the notes I used during this talk. I’d recommend holding off on reading them until after you listen to the podcast as it totally ruins the surprise 😉 But if you like, you can get a PDF copy of them for your perusal.

This subject will be the focus of a chapter in my upcoming book, Common Thoughts.

Why I Should Stop Doing Web Development

MAMP does make my failure come faster, at least.
MAMP does make my failure come faster, at least.

A few weeks ago, I got home one evening all jazzed up to hack the Carrington Theme on a local web server I set up on my Macbook. I had some definite ideas for how I wanted the front page to look, so I wanted to edit the theme and achieve my vision.

Three hours later, all I had to show for the effort was having cut it down to a single sidebar and moved that sidebar over a bit.

It all makes me feel pretty stupid, because I work with computers for a living and feel like I should be able to “just get” this.  After all, I’ve built numerous web servers, personal computers, and am experienced with a variety of different operating systems, programs, and web platforms. But when it comes to coding a page, once we get beyond HTML, I’m practically a goner.

That’s the main reason I began using Content Management Systems (CMS) after all. Beyond a simple, relatively ugly page, I can’t create that good a website.  I should just stick to creating the content that the management system manages.

One of my resolutions this year is to write and publish a book, and I’ve got a few other projects that will hopefully come to fruition that I’m not ready to reveal yet. I’m not going to get all this work done if I keep screwing around with stuff I’m not good at, though. If I invest all of my time and energy into something I’m not good at, like web development/design, then there’s no time/energy left for the things I can do well, IE writing what I want to write.

It has become a guiding philosophy for me in the last couple of years that one should gauge and recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, learning to get the most out of what they can do, rather than trying to exceed their limits or waste time doing things poorly. The only metaphor I have for this is in regards to fantasy fiction and wizards: a low-level wizard who knows how to use their power well will be able to apply it creatively and to great effect. In so doing, they may outperform a significantly more powerful wizard who is not creative and doesn’t use their power wisely; instead, the more powerful individual wastes their power because they don’t know how to use it, and the comparatively weaker of the two outshines them.

I can accept not being that great at something, but it means that I need to stop focusing on those projects that I just can’t do well. I’ll produce content, and if I have to someday, I’ll hire someone else to do my web development. For now, WordPress and Alex King’s contribution is good enough for me, and with the few minor tweaks I’ve made to it, it’ll manage my content just fine.

Genius Review — iTunes Automagic Playlist Generator

It's like Pandora, but with music you already know you like.
It's like Pandora, but with music you already know you like.

Having recently purchased an Apple Macbook, I thought I’d give iTunes another shot. The last time I had used iTunes was about three years ago following my first iPod purchase. Beholding the shinyness that all the cool kids had been using for years, I poked around, marveled at the quick downloads of podcasts and music, and generally enjoyed the experience. There are, of course, some things about iTunes that absolutely infuriate me (DRM, poor file management, duplication of tracks, etc.), but it’s obvious that this product demands you drink the Kool-Aid, and if you do, it’ll be a wonderful, magical ride.

Part of my impetus for purchasing an Apple computer was because I want an iPhone sometime in the future, and if I’m going to drop that much cash on a portable device/phone, I want to get all the functionality I can out of it. Therefore, I transferred my 12+ gb of music to the Macbook and imported it into iTunes to see how it worked, as well as to prepare for iPhone syncage when that glorious day comes.

Immediately following import, I decided I wanted all the cover art for my discs, so I told it to pull those down. Of course, iTunes demanded I register an account with the iTunes store (requiring my address, credit card number, and a vial of blood from our first born), but then happily opened its vault of artwork to me. It then asked me if I’d like to turn Genius on.

Genius is a relatively new feature in iTunes that looks at your music collection and compares it to the collections and playlists of other people. This means that you have to send information about your music library to Apple, which made me a little nervous (though I do not pirate music, or anything else as a general rule), but I went ahead and agreed to the ToS so I could find out what this thing does. Like any proper geek, my curiousity grabbed me by the throat and drug me along.

Overall, it’s been an extremely pleasant experience. When listening to a song, you can hit the Genius button (located in the track information pane at the top or at the bottom right of iTunes) and iTunes will instantly generate a playlist for you of songs similar to the one you were listening to when you hit the button. These playlists are usually about an hour and a half; I’m not sure if that’s because there’s a preference somewhere that dictates the length of the list or because I don’t have much music, but it’s sufficient for my purposes. If you like the playlist Genius produces, you can listen away, or you can run it again and again to generate slightly different lists.

Mix, match, and re-arrange, and you can also save these as permanent playlists. Of course, Apple also displays the Genius sidebar with recommendations of other albums similar to those you’re currently listening to in a bid to get you to buy some music. But it’s not really in my face, doesn’t pop out or anything, and all-in-all, I’m liking Genius. It’s like Pandora, but with only music I already know I like.

Genius doesn’t supplant Pandora, and I don’t view them as being in competition. Pandora allows me to listen to a lot of bands I either haven’t heard of or wouldn’t otherwise hear, and I’ve bought a few albums through Pandora of bands I just fell in love with after hearing a few of their songs. But Genius is a wonderful compliment to Pandora, and the fact that it’s local (requiring no Internet connection) and isn’t streaming (so there’s no buffering) is really nice.

No, iTunes isn’t the greatest music player ever (it’s probably not even in the top 5-10), but Genius is a great feature that will keep me opening it time after time.

What’s your working space?


I decided to do some cleaning on Saturday, prompted by needing some room for my Macbook. I kicked myself halfway through the process for not taking a picture before I began, because my desk was all kinds of gross: covered in milk splatters from where I eat my cereal every morning; papers, receipts, books, trash, and dirty dishes crowding the workspace; where the Macbook is now, a large, black tower PC previously resided; the monitor was far closer to the front of the desk.

I needed room to move the Macbook down onto the keyboard tray, which meant I needed room to move the keyboard somewhere else (a giant Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, which I HIGHLY recommend; more on ergonomics on Wednesday). I’d previously been using the laptop on the small table in our formal dining room, and the height was too high to be comfortable for my arms. And I also wanted to move my desktop (which still drives the Dell LCD monitor) down onto the floor.

My rather small desk was originally purchased to fit into my bedroom back when I lived in a townhouse with a couple mates of mine. The room was maybe half the size of my current office, and between a twin bed, this desk, and my computer chair, it was packed. Obviously, height rather than width was a priority, but now that I have room to spread out, my desk can be occupied by more personal rather than just essential items.

Up top are two pictures. On the left is my niece Lynette, who died in a car accident in 2001. She’d just had her senior pictures taken a month before she died, and I keep my favourite on my desk where I can always look up and see her smiling.

The picture on the right is of my wife April and me on our first date (which happened to be on Valentine’s Day in 2006) and serves as part of the frame for a wood carving from my friend Cody. This may be one of my favourite gifts ever, and has some good inside jokes built into it.

Stubbs was my nickname from grade school (based on my last name, Stublefield), and doing a roundhouse kick above my name is Chuck Norris in all his glory. To the left of my name is a cutout of the pope holding a staff, a reference to my nick in Counterstrike for a long time: The Pope (followed later by Gun Totin’ Pope when my doubles teammate ditched out on me; our team name had been The Fundamentalists, despite the fact that I wasn’t Christian at the time). The words on the right say, “It’s DM Magic!” For those of you who know, dmmagic is my new(est) online nick, and I’ve been slowly converting accounts to it for the last year. This is a reference to my many years of running Dungeons & Dragons for our group of friends, and it became a catch-phrase for explaining why something happened the way it did.

Below all this are my Klipsch speakers, which flank my various D&D manuals and my collector’s edition of World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King.

I refer to the D&D manuals occasionally when writing fantasy fiction, and the Ptolus book is mostly there to remind me of my hubris and what not to do (I should probably write an in-depth review of Ptolus some day…).

What’s your working space like? Do you keep it cluttered or neat? And are ergonomics a primary concern for you or just a big word you could care less about?

Why I bought an Apple Macbook


Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so anti-Mac once upon a time.

Oh wait, yes I am. Because they were expensive, not as functional, and didn’t bring enough to the table to justify the investment.

Enter the new Macbook

When I saw the video detailing the changes and updates in the body and design of the new Macbook, I salivated. The way they put the laptop together was very cool, and between hardware changes and the standard integration of OS X, it looked like it ran very well indeed. “If only it was around $1200 instead of $1800,” I said. “Then maybe I could justify such an extravagant piece of machinery.”

Then I looked at the page on Apple’s site and discovered that the base Book was sitting at $1299. That was almost reasonable, I thought, and I began considering it more seriously. I’ve been thinking about getting a new laptop for around two years now, and my old lappy was originally purchased in late 2003 or early 2004. It weighs around 6.8 pounds and currently gets around 30 minutes of battery life, so you might consider it more of a desktop replacement than a true mobile computer. I didn’t use it much anymore because it just wasn’t that useful for my purposes.

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Improving spontaneity

I get in this bad cycle now and again where I’ll have work I need to do, not want to do it, and yet can’t bring myself to do anything else because I know that I should be working on whatever it is that needs doing. For example, right now I need to work on my creative project for my Buddhism class (I intend to write an epic poem), but I really don’t want to. And though I’d like to do some writing on other topics, I don’t want to do that either because I know that I should be working on Buddhism stuff. In the end, I get nothing done and waste a lot of time. It’s stupid.

In addition to that, I’ve found that my blogging habits have become more and more structured, and I don’t really like that. The structure is killing all of my writing because it gets me wrapped into a logical loop where I feel I can only write so much at once, only post every so often, only write on certain topics at certain times… and that if I blog, it has to be of a certain length, depth, and consideration before it’s worth putting up here.

The result is that very little work is getting done, and that’s worthless. I have the potential to have a great deal of productivity and output, but I’m sabotaging myself to try and meet some warped expectation, imposed either by myself or some nebulous “other.”

Writing is work, and it’s not easy, but I need to apply myself. Just like going to the gym early in the morning, it kind of sucks at first, but once you get into the routine, it’s not so bad, and the end results are definitely positive.

In other news, I’m considering a new writing implement. It would be nice to be mobile again, but buying a new laptop will have to wait until sometime next year. We’ll see how our tax return turns out, and how my raise looks; I also need some time to change my mind another dozen times before settling on such a big purchase. I think it would be all kinds of helpful to have something I could carry around easily (the laptop I’m looking at weighs a total of about 3 pounds less than my current one when you include the power adapter), but I want to make sure I’m making the right decision since I’m going to have to stick with it for 3-5 years.